I’ve been thinking a lot about conditional belonging lately and what it costs us when we are told that we have to deny our true selves to belong. It’s a deep human desire to belong, we want to belong to our families, our friends, our religions, our communities, but what happens when these circles of belonging are exclusionary and based on conforming to a self that’s counter to the true self we were created to be? The cost is our very humanity. I think vulnerability researcher Brene Brown sums up belonging best when she says, “True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are, it requires you to be who you are.”
I’m seeing conditional belonging everywhere I look lately and that’s no surprise as it’s long been baked into communal spaces. I see the trail of pain and disconnection it leaves in its wake. The Pope recently reaffirmed that belonging to the Catholic church is conditional for queer people stating that priests could not bless same sex unions because same sex relationships are sinful. To receive the blessing and acceptance of the Catholic church, we queer people are to deny our true selves and our love. The entire world once again heard this message of exclusion, not just queer people. Think of the seismic shift the Pope could have unleashed if instead he’d said we welcome all people to the church and affirm their belonging as God’s perfect creations. Then imagine if the millions of Catholics who are not queer stood up and said we won’t belong to a religion that excludes any of us living as our authentic selves. When we are members of groups that exclude, we become the excluders too. We are active participants in conditional belonging and the disconnection and pain it fosters.
The list of ways we exclude people from belonging is long. We use race, religion, class, gender, sexual orientation and so many more differences to create boundaries around belonging. Any expression of the self can be used to deny belonging if we seek to divide and exclude within our hearts. I believe that those of us who find our belonging in this world the most fragile and tenuous are often those that seek to exclude others. We feel that our own belonging is dependent on the exclusion of others as if our belonging grows deeper for the exclusion. With this in mind, I’m reexamining my own circles of belonging to determine if I am party to exclusionary circles. It’s a difficult self examination, but one I feel is necessary if I don’t want to be the cause of someone else’s exclusion from belonging.
Conditions for inclusion are often set by leaders, whether they be leaders of a religion, family, political party or institution. I want to be in spaces and communities that honor everyone’s individuality. When we are bystanders and passive participants to conditional belonging, we condone it. We are saying to our kids, our friends, our families, our neighbors that we are accepting of exclusion when it doesn’t involve us.
Once we understand belonging is conditional in any of the circles of our lives, we often find ourselves twisting and contorting to conform to the desired constraints of belonging. No one thrives in a community of conditional belonging. Each person is torn further from their truest selves for simply accepting the conditions of belonging even when they don’t directly apply to them. I believe it’s why this country is so polarized. We’re all fighting to define what it means to be “American” and who gets to be included in that definition. Some want it to include everyone, some want inclusion to be narrowly defined and often seek to define exclusion by immutable traits. In this way, inclusion and belonging becomes impossible for millions of people. We all lose when we choose conditional belonging because belonging is a fundamental human need. In denying it to others, we’re also denying it to ourselves. Belonging isn’t conditional, it’s foundational and the sooner we all realize that, the sooner we’ll come to understand that we all belong for the simple fact that we are human beings and our differences are meant to be honored and celebrated.